Rebooting. Sort of.

unnamedI was inspired by Wil Wheaton’s post, “Seven Things I Did to Reboot My Life“. Not that my life needs rebooting, really. I’m married to my best friend, someone I really love and who makes me happy. I have a steady job which I enjoy and which challenges me. I have a home. My depression is under control for the most part. And so on. My life is mostly working, fully operational. So why on Earth would I need to consider rebooting anything?

Well, why not? There are some things I’d like to do more of. There are some things I’d like to do less of. Things I’d like to do better. Things I’d like to stop doing altogether.

So I’ve made a list of qualities, values, or attributes — adjectives — that I’d like to use to describe myself. Things I would like to be. They are:

  1. Be Curious. Explore the world around me, examine things more closely, be curious in public, and learn more. Keep learning new things. Read more (and Facebook and Twitter don’t count). Watch more documentaries.
  2. Be Healthy. Natch. I need to exercise more, and eat healthier. Who doesn’t? But if we’re to go to New Zealand (tentatively planned for 2020), I need to physically prepare for  a lot of walking.
  3. Be Creative. I like to write, and I like to think that I’m pretty good at it. I’d like to improve, of course. I’d also like to start exploring creativity in other areas. Not sure what though. Poetry maybe? I don’t think I have the patience to paint or sculpt, that’s for sure.
  4. Be Kind. A lot of people in the world have it rough. Everyone’s fighting some sort of battle. Why make it worse? Why not make it better for them? If a telemarketer calls, remember that they’re just doing their job, which they probably hate, so be kind to them, even as you explain that you’re not interested in their product and that you’re hanging up now.
  5. Be Humble. By which I mean remember that I’m certainly not the best or smartest or whatever person in the room. Being humble opens me up to listening to other people and learning their stories, because everyone has one.
  6. Be Playful. Play games. Play with toys, such as the Raspberry Pi mini-computer my wife gave me for Christmas. Just have fun with life. No one gets out of it alive.
  7. Be Joyful. The universe is amazing and full of wonder. Yes, there is plenty of suffering and pain. Take joy in helping to relieve them.

Many of these values are based in and informed by my faith (remember, I’m an Episcopalian). The overall theme, I think, is to simply appreciate myself and the world I’m in and the people who inhabit it. The motto of the Episcopal Church is, “Love God. Love your Neighbor. Change the World.”

I recognize, of course, that I’ll have problems with some of these from time to time. Sometimes I’ll slip back into depression, sometimes I just won’t have the energy to learn something new, sometimes my temper will get in the way of being kind to anyone. I will try to be okay with that, and when it happens, I will try to refocus.

Spring is almost here. It’s warm outside, and we’ve got the windows open, which makes the cats happy. Birds are singing. Overall, things are pretty cool.

On Being an Adult

It was good dal, made with more or less fresh lentils, organic onions and sweet potatoes, and plenty of spices. We’d made it the other night for dinner, and the recipe made a large amount of it. We had it for dinner on Sunday night and lunch yesterday. And the menu plan we’d made for ourselves for the week called for us to us to have it for dinner tonight.

Tonight, though, we were pretty much finished with the dal, even though we still had something like six servings left. But a menu plan is a menu plan. And after a brief flirtation with the idea of going to IHOP — today being International Pancake Day, after all — we decided to have the dal anyway. And lemon muffins for dessert. We watched an old episode of Face Off while we ate, and wished for pancakes.

And that’s the thing about being an adult. Sometimes, you have to pass on the pancakes so you can eat the healthy thing. Except that, as an adult, there aren’t other adults telling you that it’s good for you. You have to tell yourself.

Accountability Post No. 1

I’m going to post one of these “Accountability Posts” from time to time, to, uh… keep myself accountable to the writing goals I set for myself earlier. So here’s how I’m doing on each one:

  1. Story per month. Well, I haven’t written a story in February, and my January story, “Flash Drive”, is still in progress. I submitted it to my writers’ groups, and got some fantastic feedback, but there are serious flaws that need to be addressed. So, I plan on revising it heavily, and then sending it out to my mailing list.
  2. Paperback version of “The Winds of Patwin County”. Um. So. No progress here.
  3. Publish Tales from Patwin County. I long ago selected some of the stories that I want to include in this collection, so that’s done. I need to track down someone who can do the cover art. And revise and format the stories themselves.
  4. Finish first draft of Padma. I’ve made substantial progress on the outline, but I’m finding this project intimidating. It involves so much that I just don’t know: quantum cosmology, Hindu mythology, what medical school is like, and so on. I’m finding good resources online, but still… kind of overwhelming.
  5. Write some nonfiction. Aside from my last two blog posts, I haven’t written any. Not yet. I did set up my science blog, The Penguin Scientific, but I haven’t posted anything there yet.
  6. Submit more fiction. I haven’t done so yet.

I suppose part of the reason for not making much progress on any of these goals is simply being tired. Plus, since I spend my entire day in front of a computer at work, I’m never necessarily motivated to get in front of my computer at home and do work. Far easier to sit on the sofa in the living room, eating dinner and watching old episodes of Face Off. That’s as inspired as I get in the evenings.

So hopefully, doing these accountability posts from time to time will help me focus and do what needs to be done.

Here’s your reward for bearing with me on this: the video to “Drink with the Living Dead” by Ghoultown. It’s a creepy song, and not safe for work. Enjoy!

The Weirdness of Emergent Behaviors

800px-Whooping_Crane_in_flight_in_Texas
Whooping Crane in flight in Texas. USDA Photo by John Noll.

While listening to the February 17th episode of This Week in Science podcast, I learned that the whooping crane, Grus americana, which has been on the brink of extinction, was recently reintroduced to the wild in Louisiana, though their original habitat has changed. The birds are responding to this change, and thriving, by altering their appetite to include small reptiles and amphibians. Though their natural history isn’t entirely understood, it’s generally agreed that this is new behavior; it’s behavior that emerged after their habitat changed.

Or consider our cat Rosemary (gone but still in our hearts). She was a normal cat with no particular strange behaviors, until we acquired some small stuffed dragons, which she began to pick up in her mouth and carry around our house. She wasn’t nesting with them, because she didn’t gather them up in one single place; rather, she deposited them in random locations, upstairs and down, and sometimes on the stairs themselves. So this I’m also considering an “emergent behavior”, that is, an unexpected new behavior that emerges after a change in environment.

I suppose this isn’t technically emergent behavior, though. The term, I believe, actually comes from complexity theory and refers to a system which exhibits traits and behaviors that cannot necessarily be explained in terms of the parts. A single neuron, for example, is not at all capable of the higher thought processes that a brain, composed of millions of neurons, is capable of. Similarly, an individual ant is not capable of doing very much, but organize thousands of them into a colony and you get some very complex behaviors indeed (Douglas Hofstader, in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, even imagined that an ant colony that was capable of rational thought).

This post isn’t meant to be scientific or a reflection of any philosophical notions, just some random thoughts that I’ve pondered throughout the years. The basic point is that emergent behaviors and properties are weird. When an organism’s or individual’s habitat or environment changes in a truly novel way, you can’t necessarily predict what the response will be. Similarly, with complex systems, you can’t necessarily predict what strange properties will show up.

That’s all I got for now. Again, my next post will probably be about our cat Nutmeg, who, because she’s kind of chubby, I’ve taken to calling “Miss Chumbly-Wumbly”. Sure it makes no sense. But neither does this post.

Singularity

bigbang
Image credit: NASA

The other day, I got to thinking about singularities, as one does. Not the so-called technological or sociological singularity of Ray Kurzweil et al (which I think is just kind of silly), but the singularities that lie at the heart of the Big Bang and black holes. Mind you, the two singularities are not the same — the universe is not a black hole, and black holes are not little Big Bangs — but the basic concept, as I understand it, is essentially the same. A singularity is a construct of mathematics and physics and represents a region where we the laws of physics and mathematics simply break down. We simply can’t describe what happens at the heart of a singularity because our mathematics and our physics aren’t capable of doing so. There’s some philosophical debate as to whether the science has advanced sufficiently to a point where we can know what’s happening or we’ll never know because the mathematics will be forever beyond our ken. The point is, right we just don’t know what happens in a singularity, and we don’t even know if we ever will know.

So, it’s been established (more or less) that there are some questions we may simply never have the answers to. What happens inside a black hole? We don’t know. What happened in the first moment of the Big Bang? We don’t know. Can we determine both the precise location and velocity of a sub-atomic particle? No we can’t.

All this thinking about unanswerable questions made me dizzy while I was studying philosophy at UC Davis, and I loved it. And then I got to thinking about the limits of the human intellectual enterprise as a whole. Could it be that, in addition to questions we can’t answer, are there questions we can’t even ask?

Consider a housecat observing a human reading a book. To the human, reading a book means hallucinating vividly while staring at black marks on the remains of a dead, pulped-up tree. But what does it mean to the cat? Even the smartest of cats — such as our cat Rupert — wouldn’t know what to make of this. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the cat  lacks the capacity to even ask what the human is doing. It doesn’t occur to the cat to question it, because the cat doesn’t understand the first thing about written communication, and the concept doesn’t even exist in the cat’s mind.

So what about the limits of human comprehension? Like the housecat, we’re obviously limited in what we can comprehend and understand. Do these limits mean that we can’t ask certain questions because we’ll never know where to look?

I once asked this question of one of my philosophy professors at UC Davis. Dr. A– simply replied, “What would be the point? Get back to your paper on Descartes.”

And, of course, I can’t provide any examples of questions that can’t be asked, because, by definition, if a question can be asked then it isn’t non-askable.

Finally, if a question is non-askable, does that mean there are vast swaths of knowledge that we simply can’t ever know? I didn’t study much epistemology in college, so I never really came across this question.

So to me, this little bit of questioning suggests a sort of singularity of human thought. Just as we’ll likely never know what happens inside the singularity of a black hole or what happened before the Big Bang, we may never know the limits of our own knowledge, simply because we can’t ask the relevant questions.

That’s all I got for now. My next blog post will be different, likely about our cat Rupert, the wicked smart cat, or Sherman, who attempts to escape our house every time the front door opens. But for now, this philosophical meandering is what you get.

Writing Goals for 2016

Well, now that January is more than halfway over with, I suppose it’s time to come up with some goals for the new year, isn’t it? So. Here are some of my own goals for the new year:

  1. I entered a “death pact” with a few friends. This pact is to write a short story a month for the entire year. My January story, “Flash Drive”, is mostly complete except for revising according to feedback, although it is sort of a cheat; I started it a few months ago as part of my “Story of the Week” project. My February story is also going to be a cheat of sorts: it will be a final revision of “Burying Uncle Albert”, which needs quite a bit of work. Someday, I swear, that story will be finished.
  2. FINALLY put together and put up for sale the hard copy of “The Winds of Patwin County”. People have been asking for this. My goal is to have this up and ready on Amazon.com by May.
  3. And speaking of Patwin County, I plan to have another ebook, Tales from Patwin County, ready for sale soon. This collection will contain “Just Like This”, “Burying Uncle Albert”, and a couple of others which I haven’t decided on yet.
  4. I also hope to have the first draft of Padma done by the end of this year. I’ve already committed to submitting the first half of the first draft to my critique group by June, so… tick tock, I suppose.
  5. I also plan on writing some actual non-fiction articles this year, probably science-related.
  6. Of course, I’d also like to sell some more fiction this year. “The Hunt”, which was published in The Literary Hatchet in August (see my Bibliography page for more information), was my first sale since 2011; I don’t want another four-year gap between publications. But I can’t really make “sell more stories” a goal, since I personally don’t have a lot of control over whether a story sells or not. But I can control whether or not I submit stories, so I certainly plan on submitting more. I want to have five active submissions at all times. That’s a tough goal, but I think I can do it. I’ve done it before, but not over the span of a full year. The Submissions Grinder over at Diabolical Plots will, hopefully, help me keep on track.

That’s it. Six goals. That should be enough to keep me busy all this year. If you’re a fellow writer, and you actually read this entry, feel free to post a comment with your own goals.

Happy new year!

The Tale of the Lonely Spider

Nerd Tree(Click to embiggen this picture. It’s huge.)

We haven’t yet gotten around to decorating our house for Christmas. We were going to do that yesterday (as well as cooking a bunch of food to stock our freezer and so on), but Jennifer got sidelined by a 7-hour conference call for work, so we didn’t get any of that done. So she did that, and I worked on the Holidailies site.

We did put up our Christmas tree a couple of weeks ago. Again, we haven’t had a chance to decorate it, but a day or so after we put it up, we did put on that giant spider that you see in the upper left, assuming that Sherman would knock it down at some point. So far he hasn’t. Then, because the spider was lonely, on Saturday I added the plush Cthulhu, which is a traditional Christmas decoration in our home (actually, Cthulhu lives on top of the grandmother clock in our hallway during the year, but in the tree during Christmas time). And yesterday Jennifer added the Dalek. So is our tree sufficiently decorated? You tell me.

In other news, I have decided that there is far too much negativity and downright nastiness in my life, mostly in the social media aspect of it. So I have promised myself not to be nasty, sarcastic, or mean on Twitter or Facebook. This certainly does include my political posts, and there’s a lot going on in politics right now that has been making me angry. The trick, I think, is to express that anger in a way that isn’t sarcastic or mean. Or, better yet, to channel that anger in a positive way. Saying that one group or another sucks might be cathartic but it’s hardly constructive.

It’s a precarious balance, and since I made that promise to myself, I haven’t actually posted either on Facebook or Twitter. I am sure I’ll post though. I go through phases anyway.

Now, this may be my only post for Holidailies. Enjoy it while you can.